The Braves scoured the landscape last week to come up with veteran Josh Collmenter when they needed a fill-in starter, and the effort paid off Saturday when he pitched as if determined to prove he still belongs in the big leagues.
Collmenter limited the Nationals to two runs and four hits in five innings and matched a career high with eight strikeouts, helping the Braves to a 7-3 win that was just their third in 18 games against the Nationals this season.
“Just glad that I kind of stayed active working out, playing a little bit of catch just in case something like this happened,” said Collmenter, who hadn’t pitched since a Sept. 3 start for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. “You never know, but you hear about a quarterback sitting on the couch, and the next thing you know they get the call.”
Ender Inciarte had three hits and a walk and scored three runs, and Nick Markakis and Anthony Recker added two hits and two RBIs apiece for the Braves, who snapped a three-game losing streak and won for the third time in 11 games. They had scored 50 runs over the previous 10 games but lost eight, due primarily to a 6.20 ERA in that span.
Collmenter (2-0) became the 16th pitcher to start for the Braves this season, most in the majors and a franchise record.
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After working out at the Cubs’ spring-training site in Arizona for the past week, he threw a bullpen at Turner Field on the Thursday and was ready Saturday, when the only damage against Collmenter was a pair of leadoff homers by torrid-hitting rookie and new Braves nemesis Trea Turner, whose 11 homers this season including six against Atlanta.
Collmenter allowed only two other hits and three walks, and got out of a base-loaded, one-out jam in the second inning – he walked all three runners — by striking out pitcher Gio Gonzalez and Turner to end the inning and preserve a 1-1 tie.
“That was huge,” said Inciarte, a former Diamondbacks teammate when Collmenter was their 2015 opening-day starter.
“He worked his butt off, and when he got in trouble he never gave in,” Braves interim manager Brian Snitker said. “He kept pitching. That’s kind of what I remember (about him from Arizona). You knew the situation wasn’t going to bother him. He’s been through the wars. He did a great job competing and using what he has and giving us a chance.”
The Braves opened a 3-1 lead with two runs in the third, getting four consecutive singles against Gonzalez including an RBI hit from Freddie Freeman, who beat a defensive shift by shooting an RBI single through the vacant shortstop hole.
“It was great,” said Collmenter, a bearded right-hander with the distinct over-the-top delivery. “Any time you’re out there, you obviously want to do well. But playing with a new team and getting out there for the first time in a while, and being able to pitch out of some situations – the guys hit today, so any time you get a lead you want to protect that. Aside from the two balls that left the yard, I felt pretty good about most of my stuff.”
After missing one game to be with his wife following the birth of their first child, Freeman extended his hitting streak to a career-best 21 games and his on-base streak to a career-best 37 games, longest by a Brave since Chipper Jones’ had a 41-game on-base streak in 2008. Both Freeman streaks are the longest active streaks in the majors.
Gonzalez (11-10) lasted 4 1/3 innings and was charged with nine hits, six runs and two hit batters. The Braves have scored six runs against him twice in a span of 12 days, after getting eight hits and six runs in three innings Sept. 6.
Meanwhile, Collmenter faced four batters in each of his final three innings following the second-inning escape. He worked around a one-out double in the third inning and a leadoff single in the fourth.
“So it was good getting him the win and being on base, helping the team,” said Inciarte, who leads the majors with 87 hits since the All-Star break. “He uses the same arm action when he throws that fastball and change-up, so when hitters start thinking about one of the two that’s when they start getting jammed on an 86-mile-per-hour fastball.”
Turner homered to start the first and fifth innings and also singled and walked. He has seven hits including three homers in the first two games of the series, and a staggering .482 average (27-for-56) with 12 extra-base hits, 16 RBIs, 19 runs, seven steals and 10 multi-hit games in 12 games against Atlanta this season.
Collmenter was released by the Diamondbacks in August and signed a minor league deal with the Cubs, who wanted to get him stretched out in case they or another team needed a starter for the stretch drive. He was 1-0 with a 2.25 ERA in four Triple-A starts. The Braves got him in a Wednesday trade for an undisclosed amount of cash, and they’ll have contractual control of him for one more season before free agency.